Dorothy West Biography

Editor, Author (1907–1998)
Dorothy West is a writer remembered for her sharp observations of varied issues within the African American community.


Remembered for her sharp, observations of economic, social, class, racial and gender issues within the African-American community, Dorothy West completed her first novel, The Living Is Easy, in 1948. She also started two literary magazines, one with writer Richard Wright titled New Challenge, and published a second novel in 1995, The Wedding, to acclaim.

Early Writing

Dorothy West was born on June 2, 1907, in Boston, Massachusetts. The daughter of a freed slave, West had a fairly affluent upbringing. She studied with tutors and attended an exclusive high school. West started writing stories as a child and began to earn recognition for her work as a teenager. Her story, "Promise and Fulfillment," won a contest and was published in a local newspaper.

Another story, "The Typewriter," earned her a trip to New York City in 1926. It tied for second prize with a work by Zora Neale Hurston in an Opportunity magazine contest. West decided to stay in New York and became affiliated with burgeoning arts scene in the city’s Harlem neighborhood, which was later known as the Harlem Renaissance. She befriended poet Langston Hughes and other members of this artistic and literary movement.

Venture into Magazine Publishing

In the early 1930s, West and Hughes traveled to Russia with a group of African Americans. She originally intended on making a film about racism there, but the project fell apart. West decided to stay on for a while after that, fascinated by the country.

After the death of her father, West returned to the United States and soon established a literary magazine called Challenge. She served as the magazine's editor and published works by many leading African-American writers of the day, including Hughes and Hurston. After several years, she stopped publishing the magazine. West tried another magazine venture with writer Richard Wright called New Challenge, but this effort was short-lived.

First Novel

West found work as a member of the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers' Project in the late 1930s. While with the WPA, she wrote numerous stories. The project ended in the '40s, and West soon made some changes in her life. Her family had a summer home on the island of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, which she had often visited.

In 1947, West made it her permanent home. While living there, she completed her first novel, The Living Is Easy (1948). The work explored racial, economic, and social tensions within the African-American community through the examination of one family. The main character, Cleo Judson, marries into money and asks her three sisters and their husbands to stay with her and her new husband. Critical response to the work was mostly positive, but it failed to attract a large audience.

Later Work

West settled into life on Martha's Vineyard, working as a journalist at a local newspaper. While she had an idea for another novel, she put it on the back burner. Encouragement from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a book editor and an island summer resident, led West to complete her second novel, The Wedding (1995). West once again garnered praise from critics, who lauded the work's multigenerational look at class and racial issues regarding an affluent African-American family. The book also sparked a renewed interest in her other writings and led to the publication of the collection The Richer, The Poorer: Stories, Sketches and Reminiscences (1995).

Dorothy West died on August 16, 1998, in Boston, Massachusetts. Today, she's remembered for her sharp observations of economic, social, racial and gender issues within the African-American community.

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